Thanksgiving! 35 surgeries and 32 years later, why I’m so thankful

Picking my kids up from school this week I noticed the mosaics of construction paper Thanksgiving turkeys with handwritten messages “I’m thankful for…” written on them. One in particular said he was “thankful for hedgehogs”. This grade school exercise is undertaken yearly to teach our children the importance of being thankful, but how many of us adults take the time to reflect on our blessings? We say thank you to co-workers and spouses, but how many of us are truly thankful and take the time to really let those around us know we appreciate them.

What are you thankful for?

I’d like to ask for you to post what you’re thankful for this year. I’ll get it started by saying, I’m most thankful for a beautiful and loving wife, 5 energetic and healthy children, a family that stands beside me in the direst of straits, and a job that has provided all the necessities for my growing family. I am also thankful for my faith, a faith that has shown me what life is really about and teaches my success in life is measured not in money or promotions, but by the impact I have on the lives of others. I am extremely thankful I learned at the age of 8, that life is what we make of it, for better or worse, and no one is to blame but yourself for lack of success.

Over the past 32 years, I’ve underwent 35 surgeries, spent 3 years wearing pressure fitting garments and plastic braces, had to learn how to walk again due to being bedridden for a month, underwent hundreds of hours of rehab and took over 3 years to lift my right arm over my head, and still can’t turn my head to the left without losing hearing in my right ear and the corner of my right eye and mouth pulling severely. This was just the physical side of it. The mental pain was much worse but it more than anything helped mold me into the person I am today. At the age of 8, I experienced the earth shattering news of a doctor telling me I’d never play sports again. At the age of 18, I experienced several college fraternities telling me I wouldn’t get a bid because of my burn scars. From age 8 to 25, I experienced never having a serious girlfriend, believing marriage and having children were a fairy tale. I have had the good fortune to experience absolute hell and as a result, I know what Heaven is and spend every waking moment in pursuit of a more fulfilling life. Believe it or not, I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences. I actually feel sorry for others because they haven’t experienced what it’s like to think you’re the Biblical Job, to think your sole existence was to prove faith and a positive outlook on life conquers all. Like Job, my original blessings have been doubled and my health restored.

During all those years in the hospital I don’t ever recall feeling sorry for myself. I recall feeling angry and confused, but more frustrated than anything as I couldn’t do many things I used to do so easily. As I focused on my recovery, I realized progression would only be achieved by focusing on what I had gained in life as opposed to what I had lost. Any time I had doubts, I looked around the hospital and saw so many children burned far worse than me laughing and going about their life as if nothing was wrong. I refused to believe my life would be dictated by being a burn survivor and was willing to accept that some things would never be the same. However, never being the same didn’t mean it couldn’t be better!

It is easy for us to complain given the complexity and stresses of today’s world. In these times, I encourage you to reflect on your blessings and only entertain positive thoughts. We all have struggles, but you have the ability to overcome and achieve the greatest version of yourself.


Shay is an All American and World ranked triathlete, burn survivor with scars over 65% of his body and is a sought out national motivational speaker. Despite being told he’d never compete in sports again at the age of 8, Shay is living testament to “Anything is Possible”: 4x Ironman, 4x member of Team USA, ranked top 1% of Ironmen worldwide and has competed in 9 triathlon world championships, including the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. His mantra has always been to not merely be a “finisher” but to be a “competitor.” If you enjoyed this article, I encourage you to check out my other posts.

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